Eye on Queer Pakistan
I saw a religious man, who had fallen in love with a fellow to such a degree that he had neither strength to remain patient nor to bear the talk of the people but would not relinquish his attachment, despite of the reproaches he suffered and the grief he bore, saying:You may think that the conservative cultural forces arrayed against gay union(or marriage) in the US present a formidable challenge. They do, but look around you and you will find a culture that has made remarkable progress in the last 30 years in terms of gay acceptance. A look at a society where gay life hides in shadows and secrets is provided in Boston Globe's article, Open Secrets, on gays in Pakistan. Let me first state my objection to the tone of the essay which I find rather alarmist and hyperbolic in its attempt to present Pakistan as a Talibanized society repressed under religious law. The fact is that the Shari'ah Laws exist largely on paper and the society as a whole is perhaps the most liberal in the Islamic world. In Islamic history, you have a duality that is not even acknowledged in the article. Yes, the few verses of the Qur'an that address gay sex revolve around the fate of the people of Sodom and are fairly unforgiving. But at the same time, there is remarkable acceptance of homosexual love from both pre-Islamic and post-Islamic Arabia. Given that, the article is pretty accurate in its depiction of gay individuals in Pakistan. However, I would like to elaborate on two distinct aspects of gay experience that are only hinted at in the Globe piece.
I shall not let go my hold of thy skirtI once reproached him, asking him what had become of his exquisite intellect so that it had been overcome by his base proclivity. He meditated a while and then said:
Even if thou strike me with a sharp sword.
After thee I have no refuge nor asylum.
To thee alone I shall flee if I flee.
'Wherever love has become sultan
Piety's arm has no strength left.
How can a helpless fellow live purely
Who has sunk up to his neck in impurity?'
--- Sa'di's Gulistan
First is the sexual act itself between two males which can usually be categorized as pederasty. The romanticization of a prepubescent boy has passed on in Perso-Islamicate culture from Grecian times. Most of Sufi poetry casts the boy as one of the many personifications of the Beloved (God). The romance of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (d. 1030) and his slave boy Ayaz is part of Islamic legend. Mahmud gifted the throne of Lahore to his young lover. Another example is the grand love of Rumi and Shams Tabrizi. However, it is very hard for the historian to say that this love was physical in nature even if the expressions of longing and desire are often manifested in physical terms. In present day Afghanistan and NorthWest Pakistan, the tradition of keeping a young lover persists. However, in the metropolitan areas of Lahore or Karachi, this relationship is one of exploitation of the lowest classes by the haves. The article does not point out that this exploitation of children is gender neutral and that girls who find work in the homes of middle or upper class urban homes are just as likely to be assaulted and raped. The sad realities of these innocent children is not a gay issue and should be addressed unequivocally.
Second is the issue of those who identify themselves as gay having a safe, public life. This is where Islam-inspired homophobia, repression and denial emerge as overriding public sentiments. Pakistani gays exist closeted, marked by secret signs and settings. You know when someone is gay but you can never acknowledge that because what would be the use? Silence becomes the primary medium. There are many lifelong bachelors and aunts in a society geared explicitly toward marriage and procreation. In many ways, the repression of Victorian era England comes to mind. A stark departure from the pinings for the Beloved that had their space in Perso-Islamicate culture. The only community of fringe-dwellers publicly able to exist as pseudo-gay are the trans-gendered hijira who provide much needed sexual release for the straight males.
Gay Rights, unlike Women's Right or Minority Rights is not on the public spectrum of reformists or moderates in Pakistan. AIDS education is non-existent as well. One necessary step is to eliminate the abuse of children. The rest will be a long march. And some brave souls, like the Al Fatiha Foundation, have started on the path.x-posted on Chapati Mystery
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Ralph E. Luker - 7/13/2004
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